What Can We Learn from the Michelle Carter Verdict?


Amy McManus, LMFT

What Can We Learn from the Michelle Carter Verdict?
by Amy McManus, LMFT

Words matter. Texts matter. And, according to Judge Moniz, words can kill.

Michelle Carter is a 20-year-old young woman who was convicted on June 16, 2017 of involuntary manslaughter in the suicide death of her boyfriend Conrad Roy, which took place in July 2014. A well-publicized series of disturbing texts where she advises Conrad to kill himself leads up to the basis of the conviction– a phone call where she tells Conrad to get back in the truck full of carbon monoxide.

I don’t know Michelle Carter, and I could not presume to diagnose her on the basis of texts and news reports. We know that in June of 2014, she was struggling with some serious mental health issues. Expert witness and psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin testified that she didn’t know she was doing anything wrong. The prosecutor painted a picture of her as a manipulative young woman who convinced her boyfriend to commit suicide in order to play the grieving girlfriend, and gain sympathy and friendship.

The media buzz regarding this trial is all about Michelle Carter- was her conviction fair, or not– but what about Conrad Roy? Regardless of Michelle Carter’s culpability in this case, what can we as therapists take away from this tragic situation that could help the troubled teenagers in our community?

Here are 3 ways we can counsel parents of teenagers in a way that might make a difference for someone like Conrad Roy.

  1. Parents of teenagers need to be aware of the “relationships” their teenagers have on-line.

However much we think Michelle’s behavior is aberrant and mentally unstable, there are aspects of her relationship with Conrad that are more typical than we would like to imagine. Teenagers today think it is “normal” to have a relationship with someone they have never met or haven’t seen in a year. Even teenagers at the same school often conduct most of their relationship via text or social media.

Many parents are afraid of this kind of a relationship because of internet predators. In fact, a much more common danger is that the teenager will isolate, and forgo actual real-life relationships with their peers in favor of an idealized on-line relationship. If parents categorically demonize on-line relationships, their teen will simply hide the fact of any on-line relationships from them.

  1. Parents need to encourage their teenagers to engage in activities that will lead to close relationships in real life.

Maintaining real- life relationships is especially important when a teenager has a significant on-line relationship. This can take the form of sports or groups, especially if they are groups that include teens from various schools, or of various age groups, like church groups or community service groups. Volunteering at an animal shelter is a popular option for many teens.

Teens with on-line relationships will often race home after school to log-in and connect with their boyfriend or girlfriend on-line. They will spend literally hours and hours with the connection open, while they (try to) do homework, watch a show, or surf the internet. They will stay connected and fall asleep with the computer open or the phone on. Parents need to be especially aware of this isolating behavior, which often goes hand-in-hand with teenage depression. Getting the teenager out of the house and engaging in activities with other teens in real life can make a significant difference in their mood and outlook. 

  1. We need to teach parents of teenagers how to talk to their teenagers so that the teenagers will come to them when they need help.

 When a teenager is in a lot of pain, as was Conrad Roy, they believe that the other teenagers they know are so much more confident and capable than they are. They don’t understand that another teenager is probably the last person who is able to teach them how to live a happy and meaningful life. They see only the idealized lives of their friends on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat.

When another teenager is unable to help them relieve their pain, they can easily conclude that it must be impossible– surely an adult would have no idea what they are going through.

Teens are reluctant to confide in their parents for a number of reasons. Besides assuming that their parents can’t possibly understand the current demands of “teen world”, which is likely somewhat true, they assume that their parents would judge and criticize them.

We need to encourage parents to talk to their teens frankly and calmly about depression and suicide. Parents need to be matter-of-fact. They need to explain that depression can hit anyone without prior warning, that there is effective help available, and that there is no shame in reaching out for it.

Parents need to explain that if their teen is lucky enough never to experience depression or suicidal ideation themselves, they will undoubtedly have at least one friend who will, and they can always come to them, the parents, to figure out where to go next for help.

Parents need to be open, matter-of-fact, confident, and informed.

They need to have numbers for teen hotlines and suicide hotlines. They need to tell their teens that they can call the hotlines themselves if their friends are reluctant to do so.

We are not helpless to stem the rise of teen suicide, but it will take a community to do so. We need to train parents and school personnel how to talk to teens about suicide, and we need to give teenagers resources to help each other. Only by removing the stigma of suicide and talking openly about it can we hope to change the attitude of sensationalism to one of deep empathy and support.

24/7 Suicide Hotline:  Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text “START” to 741741

Here is a link to “Talking Points About Suicide for Parents of Teens.” https://www.thrivetherapyla.com/5-talking-points-about-teen-suicide-for-parents-of-teens. Please feel free to pass these on to your colleagues and clients.

Note: Michelle Carter is due to be sentenced on August 3, so there is sure to be more about her in the news soon after you receive this issue of Voices.

 

Amy McManus, LMFT, specializes in communication between parents and teens. Amy previously worked for four years as a school counselor in various high schools in Los Angeles. She has raised four teenagers of her own, and is married to a high school teacher and administrator. Amy’s weekly blog (http://www.thrivetherapyla.com/blog/) offers parenting tips and other mental health information for parents and teens. You can contact Amy at amymcmanuslmft@gmail.com.